'Sesame Street' Puppets, a Homemade Marshmallow Gun and More: Behind the Scenes of Obama's Museum

Three of the people tasked with procuring the collection for the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center Museum talk to PEOPLE about what visitors can expect

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama (right) and Joey Hudy in 2012. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Museum registrars are used to handling precious cargo. It's all part of their job, after all, which requires managing the logistics of a collection, documenting each piece and preparing it to go on view.

Rob Kent is the registrar at the Obama Presidential Center Museum, the forthcoming Chicago facility that will house exhibits focused on the life and legacy of former President Barack Obama. Like so many of his colleagues, Kent is familiar with working with donors to secure items for a museum and ensuring they get to their final destination safely.

But a recent acquisition was something else entirely — so important, in fact, that it required its own fine art shipper and dedicated delivery truck.

Detailing the white-glove process of packaging and transportation, Kent tells PEOPLE: "This is one of those objects that we really needed to provide the highest standard of care and tracking until it got from its home in New York to us in Chicago."

The donor was Sesame Workshop, and the items in question were a basket of vegetable-shaped puppets that were featured in an episode of Sesame Street on which former First Lady Michelle Obama was a guest.

"We felt like that was a really unique and fun and engaging group of materials. That was a really big win for us," says Sophie Loyd, curatorial senior associate at the museum.

The Obama museum officials spoke with PEOPLE to preview their work so far and what is to come.

Sesame Street Puppets
Sesame Street Puppets. Photo courtesy of the Obama Foundation

Once the items reach the parking lot of the museum's Chicago storage facility — where the pieces from the museum's collection are stored while the center itself remains under construction ahead of a planned 2025 opening — they're inventoried and carefully catalogued, measured and placed in a temperature-controlled area.

Some of the items that will be on display at the presidential museum are to be expected: documents that were a major part of history, for instance, or campaign materials from when the candidate ran for office.

But the collection at the Obama Presidential Center Museum — a $500 million project that celebrated its groundbreaking in September — is a little more unique.

The official records from the Obama administration are under the purview of the National Archives and are currently housed in a state-of-the-art storage facility at Hoffman Estates, a town outside Chicago.

The Obama Presidential Center Museum — which will be located on Chicago's South Side in Jackson Park — is privately operated by the Obama Foundation. It's separate entity from the digital-only Obama Presidential Library run by the National Archives, but a substantial number of presidential records and artifacts belonging to the archives will be loaned to the center and will be on display in the museum.

The museum will also display other pieces of history — some of which "you might not think of," says Loyd, the curation official.

Barack Obama Presidential Center
Barack Obama at a groundbreaking for his presidential center in Chicago. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/getty

"We've been really mindful about building a collection that speaks to the idea of American history and the connection to the president's story — thinking about the formative years of the president and Mrs. Obama, thinking about the post-White House legacy and the connection to the ongoing work of the foundation," Dr. Louise Bernard, the director of the Obama Presidential Center Museum, tells PEOPLE.

Central to that narrative, Bernard adds, are the stories of everyday people.

The collections process began to ramp up once President Obama left office in January 2017. Around then, the museum began crowdsourcing artifacts, seeking help from the general public by asking people to send in any special objects they might have related to the Obama administration.

The museum created an online portal to which people could send information about artifacts and even held gathering events on the road to solicit materials, until the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to that in 2020.

They've so far gathered some 3,000 objects — everything from old business cards belonging to a young Michelle Robinson to child-made macaroni sculptures in the shape of the former president.

"People were really excited to share their materials and share stories of when they met Obama, how they knew him beforehand. Or if they supported his campaigns in his earlier career. 'Where can I send my button?' or 'My daughter made a macaroni Obama or did this drawing in her class,' " Loyd says. "We kept seeing this demand and excitement around the opportunity to share materials. We saw a lot of 'This belongs in your museum' come across our inbox."

The demand, says Loyd, was striking. Some people might submit as many as 100 items.

"People would come to these community collections gatherings and say, 'I have a full trunk of memorabilia,' " Loyd says. "In Iowa, someone came in and had a tattoo of the president and spoke to us about the ways in which his leadership and the administration had really changed her life. Even just speaking about buttons — buttons you would never imagine exist. All the different places ad ways people might identify themselves — 'Star Wars fans for Obama,' for instance. Really, really niche things that allow you to see the widespread enthusiasm for this candidate."

Other items on that are part of the center's collection are from even earlier years in the Obamas' lives — like a certificate of merit plaque awarded to then-Michelle Robinson in 1979 for inclusion in that year's edition of Who's Who of America.

The plaque, Bernard says, was "honoring tomorrow's leaders today."

Obama Foundation
Michelle Robinson business card. Courtesy of the Obama Foundation

Of course, there are also plenty of items from the Washington years — a part of the president's life that, Bernard admits, can be a little dry to convey in a museum geared toward visitors of all ages.

"A presidential museum tells the story of the presidents and their work and it can seem kind of dry and policy wonk-ish ... but we want to ensure kids feel like they have a way in to the story and they see themselves reflected back in the narrative of the administration's work," Bernard says.

To make the experience one that even kids will enjoy, the staff at the Obama Presidential Center worked to gather materials for the collection that would delight the younger set. That includes a high-powered marshmallow gun made by a then 14-year-old student from Arizona named Joey Hudy.

In 2012, Joey's creation earned him an audience with then-President Obama, who was photographed helping the boy launch marshmallows on to the White House walls.

"The marshmallow cannon is part of a story we're telling on science and innovation, which on the one hand is kind of a dry story but then you get to this this really wonderful object that a kid created and took to the White House," Bernard says. "There's also a wonderful photo of the inventor — Joey Hudy and the president — and you can kind of see the energy that's inspiring the president himself."

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In addition to marshmallow guns and macaroni Obamas, the center will also house significant documents, such as the marriage certificate for Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, the gay couple whose Supreme Court appeal led to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, and iconic pieces of art from the presidential campaign.

"There's some material that we just kind of knew we would certainly want to be a part of the collection and that's things like the iconic Hope poster by Shepherd Fairey," Loyd says, adding that the museum is currently working on acquiring one of the original posters from the 2008 campaign.

As Kent notes, because the collection is so rife with pieces donated by members of the community, the sum of those offerings can feel a bit more poignant than, say, a high-value piece of artwork donated by a corporation.

"For a lot of donors, it's a little bittersweet giving these items to the museum — these are things from an important part of their life or something that they created," Kent says.

But the museum's collection isn't all about looking back at history, as the former president himself said at a virtual groundbreaking for the presidential center last year.

"It won't just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle's ball gowns, although I know everybody will come to see those," Obama said then. "It won't just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward."

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